Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Starting an EU reading list

After nearly ten years of putting up with me blathering on about it, and just as I’ve started to find the whole thing more tedious than ever, the missus is starting to get interested in the EU. (Poor woman…)

As such – and further inspired by Eurogoblin’s excellent recent post on the history of European integration (very similar to something I’ve been meaning to write for years but have never got around to), Ralf Grahn’s follow-up, suggesting some of his favourite Italian books about the concept, and the fact that numerous people (not just the wife) have asked me to recommend books over the years – I reckoned it was finally time to get started on compiling a list of some of the best books on the EU and Europe, both for those starting out in EU affairs for the first time and those who want to learn more.

So, this is the first in what I hope will become a new series in which I’ll start compiling an EU reading list. But I won’t confine myself just to dusty political / historical text books. Instead, I’ll also explore some of the best magazines, articles, websites, blog posts, films, documentaries, novels, paintings, sculptures, music and whatever else springs to mind that can aid understanding both of the European Union as political project, and the concept of Europe itself. Hell, the strapline of this blog has been “in search of a European identity” for years now, and I’ve still not quite got around to exploring the concept.

Added advantage? It can help sate my bibliophilia, and give purpose to my reading / re-reading.

Suggestions for inclusions welcome – though I’ve got enough chunky tomes piled high in the flat to keep me going for a fair while yet…

Note to publishers: Yes, I will gladly accept review copies. But don’t expect a favourable review, just because you bung me a freebie. I’ve reviewed books professionally for several years now, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and have my (modest) reputation to consider… If you have a book (or DVD, or whatever) you think should be included in the list, get in touch via info {at}


  1. Great idea. Let me add a couple to get the ball rolling:

    1) “Europe: A History” by Norman Davies. It’s a beast of a tome – took me a bloody year to get through. It’s pretty shoddy as an introduction to European history (Davies assumes the reader already has a fairly decent knowledge) and it’s also not so great if you want to go into any great detail. Instead, it’s a fantastic look at how all the different European histories join up and overlap. It’s also a reminder that “Europe” means Eastern Europe as well.

    2) “The Great Deception” by Richard North and Christopher Booker. Easily the best Eurosceptic treatment of the EU I’ve yet come across. Which makes it such a pity that North’s rhetoric has grown so extreme of late.

    As for fiction: Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” gave left the impression of a community of European monks living in the Middle Ages – joined together by a common language (Latin) and faith.

    My wife offers Milan Kundera and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled as a great book to evoke the feeling of Mitteleuropa. I’d add Kafka to that.

  2. Other than Ishiguro (haven’t read that one), that lot were all already on the (mental) list. Kundera was what got me interested in central/eastern Europe back when I was a teenager, Davies’ Europe has been gathering dust for well over a decade, and needs another airing, Eco I adore (though prefer Foucault’s Pendulum), Kafka is long overdue a re-read, and it’s about time I got around to reading North and Booker’s book – I’ve heard good things, even if both of them have become increasingly hard to take seriously in their shorter writings in recent years.

    Reckon this should keep me going on the blog front for a while…

  3. More an academic book and thus perhaps not exactly what you are looking for but I’ve always found Andrew Moravcsik’s take on the EU the most compelling and thus would recommend any EU reading list feature his book: The Choice for Europe.

  4. Nosemonkey,

    Your recurring complaint is that institutionally the European Union is extremely complex and boring at the same time. Thus, you may have found your philosopher’s stone when you branch out to start discussing Europe in a wider framework, including every known subject and media.

    For readers and watchers, reviews are a great way to gain insight into possible choices to delve into.

    For you, the abundance of materials is such that it should keep you going for a few centuries, at least.

  5. It has some factual errors in it, but “The United States of Europe” by J. R. Reid is a good start for anyone wanting a simple to follow (and interesting) intro to why the EU matters. Building on Charlemagne’s post would also be handy!

  6. Actually, I’m planning a similar project on my own blog at the moment. Perhaps the two could overlap somewhat? My own focus, however, is much more on the history and culture of “Europe” than on the EU specifically.

    I’ll be investigating European history in several “chunks” (or perhaps “eras” might be a more elegant way of putting it). The first chunk/era I’ve got planned is 1337 – 1648, i.e. the beginning of the Hundred Years War until the Treaty of Westphalia. Here’s my own tentative reading list for that period (it will, of course, take years – and I’m unlikely to get through it all). Oh, and it’s very biased towards Western Europe at the moment, so any ideas about good books on Eastern European history would be much appreciated.

    First, a few general overviews of European history:

    Roberts, J.M. – A History of Europe (The classic overview)

    Davies, N. – Europe: A History (The other great classic)

    Kennedy, P. – The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Brilliant military/economic history of the world – but mostly Europe – from 1500 to the 20th Century)

    Barzun, J. – From Dawn to Decadence (A very well-written “cultural history” of Europe from 1500 to 2000 – covers culture, religion, philosophy, science and society.)

    Diamond, J. – Guns, Germs & Steel (Not really a history of Europe, but examines the reasons why European empires came to colonise the rest of the world)

    Some pre- and early-Renaissance stuff

    Sumption, J. – The Hundred Years War (Vols. I, II & III) (Sumption has spent three decades compiling the foremost history of the Hundred Years War – a conflict he argues shaped the national characters and institutions of modern France and Britain)

    Huizinga, J. – The Autumn of the Middle Ages (One of the first “cultural historians” – to be read with some caution)

    Then, a look at the Renaissance proper:

    Skinner, Q. – The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Vols. I & II) (An absolute classic – traces the origins of modern political thought to the Renaissance and Reformation era)

    Kristeller, P.O. – Renaissance Thought (One of the pre-eminent Renaissance scholars)

    Burckhardt, J. – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Has been criticised in recent times, but still regarded as a classic of Renaissance scholarship)

    Southern Europe in the late 16th Century

    Braudel, F. – The Mediterranean: And the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Vols. I & II) (The magnum opus of probably the greatest French historian of the postwar period)

    Investigating the impact of printing on the Reformation

    Febvre, L. & Martin, H-J. – The Coming of the Book

    Eisenstein, E. – The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

    (The printing press was one of the most important inventions in European history. I thought I’d take a closer look, and Eisenstein, Febvre & Martin are three of the foremost scholars on this subject.)

    A look at Erasmus

    Huizinga, J. – Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

    Bainton, R. – Erasmus of Christendom

    Froude, J.A. – Life and Letters of Erasmus

    (Erasmus interests me greatly – so I thought I’d have a look at his life)

    Finally, a selection of Leopold von Ranke’s work on the period

    von Ranke, L. – History of the Latin and Teutonic nations from 1494 to 1514

    von Ranke, L. – History of the Reformation in Germany (Vols. I & II)

    von Ranke, L. – Civil Wars and Monarchy in France, in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries

    von Ranke, L. – The Roman Popes, their Church and State, in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries

    von Ranke, L. – The Ottaman and Spanish Empires in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries

    (von Ranke must rank (sorry) as one of the greatest historians of the modern era. I might browse through some of his work on the period).

    That’s it so far. Obviously, I won’t be finishing it all. But I’ll read some of it – and will recommend the best stuff.

  7. Oh, and one of the reasons for the emphasis on von Ranke is because his stuff is all public domain now – and translations are available online.

  8. Cheers – a number of those are already on the list, especially Kennedy (still a great overview), Skinner (always good), Barzun (which I’ve just started re-reading), Burckhardt (insanely influential), and Braudel (ditto).

    The old MA in history is likely to mean that I’ll be stretching back far, far further than the 20th century – because you can’t hope to understand the EU without a solid grasp of both the member states and the continent’s history and culture.

    Short version:

    I quite buy into the idea (propagated primarily by Jacques Le Goff and others of the Annales School) that the concept of Europe as a coherent idea started to form in the medieval period, though my old specialism at university was the Reformation and its aftermath, which I’d argue is pretty much *the* most important factor in the shape and culture of *modern* Europe – not least because it forced people to stop taking a unified Christendom for granted, and start analysing their relationships with people in other countries like never before.

    As such, early additions from me are likely to be Le Goff’s The Birth of Europe, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (truly superb) Reformation: Europe’s House Divided. Then a bit on the 30 Years War (little-known in Britain thanks to coinciding with our own civil war, but crucial to an understanding of much of the last 400 years of continental European history) – though I haven’t decided yet whether to go for Schiller (public domain) or a more modern history.

    This is also likely to prove a good opportunity for me to brush up on my ancient history, and finally get around to finishing Gibbon. Because let’s face it, Greece and Rome still permeate huge chunks of European society.

  9. Ack, can’t believe I missed out Le Goff’s “The Birth of Europe” – absolutely superb (and very influential).

    In terms of public domain stuff, Wikibooks offers some interesting primers. European History, Western Music History and Art History seem most relevant to a study of European history and culture. Be warned: I have absolutely no idea if they’re any good. They’ve probably got all the flaws of a Wikipedia entry, but their primary merit is in the fact they’re free. Might be useful, therefore, if you want general readers to follow what you’re writing about.

    On the other hand, that’s what libraries are for…

  10. @Nosemonkey @Eurogoblin

    There is enough to review for scores of Eurobloggers to give their views and recommendations.

    I see ho harm if several bloggers review the same book, since each one has his personal angle. On the contrary, this could lead to discussion on and between blogs.

  11. Didn’t the European Citizen say he was reading a good book about the 30 Years War? “Europe’s Shame” or some such? I’ll give him a yell on Twitter and point him towards this thread.

  12. Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson, I believe. Not read that one.

    The big trouble with the 30 Years War is finding one that can present it in a way that’s easy to follow without imposing an artificial narrative, or being too focused on the perspective of one country. I’ve read a fair few in recent years – Wedgewood, Parker, one by some Czech Marxist chap whose name escapes me, bits of Schiller and Gardiner, Pursell’s biography of Frederick V of the Palatinate, Oman’s biography of his wife, and a whole bunch of others. None of them (in isolation) have quite managed to make the thing understandable.

    It may well simply be one of those things that’s too big for one book/one historian to cover.

  13. I’ve just dug out my copy of “Birth of Europe” and have been re-reading it; am struck again by just how far back Le Goff puts the origins of “Europe.” Other historians put it at about 1500 (or, at the earliest, 1300), whilst the name “Europe” didn’t really replace “Christendom” until the 18th Century. Le Goff pushes the origins of the idea of Europe back to the 4th Century and the break-up of the Western Roman Empire – citing Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre as two earlier historians who put forwards the same notion.

    From “The Birth of Europe”:

    “The Middle Ages [Eurogoblin: i.e. from what is popularly known as the “Dark Ages” to the Early Modern period] manifested, and frequently embodied, the major real or supposed features of Europe: these include the combination of a potential unity and a fundamental diversity, the mixing of populations, West–East and North–South oppositions, the indefinite nature of its eastern frontier, and above all, the unifying role of culture.”

    My question, Nosemonkey, is how far back are you going to start your research? At the fall of the Roman empire? With Alexander? Ancient Greece? Or prehistory?

  14. Short answer: As far as it takes me.

    I’m also not entirely sure that I’m going to limit myself just to the geographical Europe (whatever that may be – there’s not even consensus on that). After all, once you start talking about cultural identity, you need to understand/explore how it’s distinct from other cultures.

    Quick example: Some argue that up to the Reformation (if not beyond), “Europe” was synonymous with “Christendom”. How, if that’s true, does one account for the Orthodox Church, which spread well into Asia and the Middle East, or the Coptic Church of Africa? What (if anything) makes Ethiopian or Indian or Syrian or Chinese Christianity culturally different to European Christianity?

    And another: Considering most “European” culture originates in the Mediterranean, what makes the northern and western Mediterranean coasts European while the southern and eastern are not? Is it just religion, or something more fundamental? And what – if anything – links the olive oil and wine cultures of southern Europe to the butter and beer cultures of northern Europe other than religion and proximity?

    These divisions within Europe itself also need to be explained: north/south, east/west. The Iberian Peninsula is a prime example – culturally complex and distinct. Is this attributable to the 20th century dictatorships in Spain and Portugal? The strength of the Habsburgs in the 16th/17th centuries? The Spanish/Portugese empires? The Islamic occupation of the medieval period? The clash of Carthaginian and Roman influences from the ancient world? Or do we need to go back even further, and take into account the protection afforded by the Pyrenees and the likely impact this would have had on early man during and after the last Ice Age?

    As I say, I’m a big fan of the Annales School, especially the concept of the longue durée…

  15. This deserves a blog post in reply, but I’ll wait until you properly kick-off your feature… and yet I can’t completely resist commenting.

    Quick example: Some argue that up to the Reformation (if not beyond), “Europe” was synonymous with “Christendom”. How, if that’s true, does one account for the Orthodox Church, which spread well into Asia and the Middle East, or the Coptic Church of Africa?

    True, but the Coptic Church has always been a minority since the Muslim Conquests and the Byzantine territories in Asia and the Middle East were reversed fairly thoroughly. Perhaps “Europe” was defined, therefore, by Medieval Islam (i.e. the limits of European expansion). If the Greek Empire had resisted more successfully, the so-called “borders” of Europe might be different. This is a problematic definition for me, however, because I take the “European” part of the phrase “European Muslim” seriously.

    What (if anything) makes Ethiopian or Indian or Syrian or Chinese Christianity culturally different to European Christianity?

    Personally, I can speak for Ethiopian Christianity – it’s unique. Having lived in Ethiopia for the last few months, my initial impression is that it’s unlike any other culture around (including the rest of Africa). I’ve traveled and lived in Asia extensively, and I’ve always felt like an outsider there. Living in European countries, however, I’ve felt a strong cultural bond (perhaps all the stronger because I’ve lived so long outside of Europe). This bond is the same wherever I am in Europe: from North to South, from East to West. It’s made up of a shared history, linguistic similarities and similar social norms and customs, and (though I’m not religious) religion has to fit in there somewhere.

    Considering most “European” culture originates in the Mediterranean, what makes the northern and western Mediterranean coasts European while the southern and eastern are not? Is it just religion, or something more fundamental?

    Religion is certainly an important element. But go to Turkey; there’s a Muslim country with a strong historical tradition linking it to Europe, and with strong cultural ties.

    And what – if anything – links the olive oil and wine cultures of southern Europe to the butter and beer cultures of northern Europe other than religion and proximity?

    A history of shared religion and proximity going back thousands of years. A shared continent also encourages a melting pot. Trentino, for example, is a beer and butter culture of Italy (and the Trentini would describe themselves as Italian, unlike the Sud-Tyroleans). Paris is wine and olives, but it’s closer to London than Madrid.

    The old Charlemagne went into a lot of this on his blog before he moved to London. It’s a shame he probably won’t finish his musings on this topic.

  16. Ah… I see the “blockquote” tag doesn’t work here. You’ll just have to figure out which are your comments and which are mine.

  17. @ Nosemonkey

    You’re right, it’s Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson. I’m only halfway through it, but it’s a good book. He writes in the Introduction, that he wanted to write a bit more on the post-Wallenstein part of the war, since he feels that most histories trail off after that point. I haven’t got that far, so I can’t say how he treats it, but it’s been good so far – he goes into the situation on the Hungarian border region, Spain’s war with the Netherlands (and the links with the Empire through the “Spanish Road”), French diplomacy, etc. Plus, of course, internal Imperial politics.

    Since it’s a broad an complex period there isn’t extensive analysis of each, but I think he covers each part well given how much needs to be covered. It’s my first book on the Thirty Years War, so I can’t really compare it to others, but I’m quite happy with it.

  18. I find it odd no one’s mentioned Tony Judt’s Postwar for a general history of Europe since the end of the war. It’s probably the best general history of the continent during this period, and it spends an awful amount of time covering into Eastern and Central Europe–worth every penny for that alone. (I would add, by the by, Judt’s bibliography for the book, which you can only find at the Remarque Institute’s website. It’s a great list of books, many of which informed his writing, covering the individual nation states, their cultures and societies, and their continent-wide interactions during the time period.)

    I have many more recommendations, to include magazine links and stuff, but I can’t be bothered to post them now. Will do so soon–and I look forward to answering some of the questions you’ve posed here.

  19. Pingback: Towards an EU Reading List |

  20. The Constitution of Europe by J H H Weiler

  21. Mark Leonard’s “Why Europe will run the 21st Century” is an optimistic way to start any reading about the EU!